President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address painted a hopeful vista for that looks to be a busy year of geopolitical action and beyond. But chaos beckons even more strongly than his rhetoric.
Since the shocking attacks on Paris and San Bernardino late last year, there has been some progress in the struggle against Isis. Progress late in 2015 helped lead to a 14 percent diminution of Islamic State territory in what has been post-colonial Iraq and Syria. And since then, Ramadi, a key city in Iraq, has largely fallen to American-backed Iraqi government forces, though fighting continues in parts of the city.
There have been more air strikes, principally by Russian and American planes, against Isis commerce, notably in the oil trade. And the Obama administration is trying rather quiet diplomacy with tech firms to get them to move more aggressively against Isis's shockingly successful recruitment to its murderous aims on social media.
President Barack Obama delivered an upbeat assessment of the fight against Isis in his final State of the Union address.
But a true sense of urgency still seems absent, especially since Isis has not only declared war but is attempting to wage war.
Obama is probably right that the threat of jihadism is not of an existential nature. But a dilatory response, which Obama demonstrated for months during the rise of Isis, as I wrote at the time, could escalate the threat just as a crude Trump-style overreaction to Islam as a whole would certainly do.
And we are confronted by new information -- both about stunning deficiencies in our massive security apparat and new developments in the scene -- which hold legitimate cause for a fresh sense of alarm.
Paris authorities squelched another attempted terrorist attack earlier this month. And in the US, the Islamist couple who shot 35 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino turned out to have been radicalized advocates of jihad for years. So more obvious security gaps have been exposed.
The San Bernardino jihadist couple met online, the man in California, the woman in Saudi Arabia, drawn together by their extreme religionist views. The woman never had to show she'd actually met her intended husband before getting her US visa. And her social media musings were never perused, as a result of an odd Obama Homeland Security Department policy blocking such scrutiny of those seeking admittance to the US. Which is not just bizarre security policy but extremely stupid politics, as the campaign ahead will no doubt demonstrate. Think about that the next time you're shlepping through an airport in your socks.
Meanwhile, the regions in question are becoming more chaotic, not less.
Under some increased pressure, Isis within the past week pulled off major terrorist bombings in Jakarta, hitting the Asian powerhouse Indonesia, largest Muslim nation in the world, for no obvious purpose, and tourist magnet Istanbul, in apparent response to some recent efforts by the Turkish government to shore up its sieve-like border and rein in Isis commerce and foreign recruitment efforts.
Evidently not wanting to be totally outdone, a rival Al Qaeda outfit hit the capital of North Africa-adjacent Burkina Faso, the former French colony.
While all this emerged, Isis continued its efforts to ramp up its significant beachheads in chaotic post-Gaddafi Libya, a major failure of administration policy, where the group is having some success in gaining sway over part of the oil industry. Isis is even in the mix now up in Afghanistan, where the much more moderate, as it were, Taliban have enjoyed some notable successes of late in another failure of American policy.
The Obama administration has finally acceded to the obvious in Syria, agreeing with Russia that the transition period for the Assad regime will not be brief. That should help overall efforts against Isis.
Still notably absent despite a recent promise of renewed effort in the anti-Isis fight are the Saudis and other Gulf Arab powers, who pulled a big fade last year from the active anti-Isis coalition.
The Saudis themselves are at new risk of destabilizing, and as such are potentially an increasingly destabilizing element in the volatile region. They sanctioned the big oil price drop from June 2014, which put serious pressure on Russia and Shiite rival Iran with the oil price dropping 60 percent in a matter of months. This also led to the short-term effect of boosting a faltering US domestic economy even as it shot down future gains in high-cost US oil production (i.e., shale and fracking) and countered growing political efforts to wean the West from its fatal oil addiction.
The Saudis were able to do this because only Kuwait among major oil producers has a lower break-even point on oil production costs. Anything above $12 a barrel is profit for the Saudis, so they resolutely held up production, making it very hard for anyone else to cut their production without losing market share, volume, and revenue.
But with China's economy in a major downshift and slowdowns elsewhere already having begun, the oil price has again plunged downward. At less than $30 per barrel, the price is now a whopping 75 percent lower than it was in June 2014. The previous big price drop had already caused major budget deficits for a Saudi regime which buys acquiescence to its absolutist rule with huge public subsidies and make-work programs. Now King Salman and company, largely one branch of the vast House of Saud, who've presided over more executions in its one-year post-Abdullah reign than in any of the past 20 years, has even bigger deficits in store.
Having already essentially defined dissent as "terrorism" in a new set of laws, the Saudi regime is embarking on a big round of subsidy cuts and privatizations to slash the new deficits, deficits which could eat through the Kingdom's vast reserves in well under a decade. But no taxes on income or wealth are forthcoming, of course.
What could go wrong with that approach, right??
While spending for subsidies of income, health, energy and the like are slashed, Saudi spending on arms and internal security is sharply increasing. The Saudis are already pursuing an unsuccessful anti-Shiite proxy war in Syria and a bogged down anti-Shiite war in neighboring Yemen. And earlier this month, Saudi Arabia further used the ante by executing a dissident Shiite cleric, which led to the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which in turn led to the Saudis breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran.
The prospect of an unleashed Sunni-Shiite war across the region is increasing.
Not that our relations with Iran are all that good, either, despite the administration's putting the best face on its not exactly iron-clad nuclear pact with the Islamic Republic.
Last month, Iranian missile boats let fly less than a mile from the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in what can easily be seen as a proverbial shot-across-the-bow. And a few days ago, two US Navy fast patrol boats were captured by Iranian forces near Farsi Island, their crews arrested and detained over night after the vessels somehow penetrated Iranian waters while en route from Bahrain to Kuwait.
It's a very hazy situation, with the American story shifting several times. Those are familiar waters to me, and the island is not exactly on a direct route from Bahrain to Kuwait. Nor is it clear why the boats would be captured in the first place. They are very fast and highly maneuverable. Frankly, none of it quite makes sense.
But these things happen sometimes. Unfortunately, this is not the only thing going sour for the US in the region. Not by a long shot.
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